Updike's South American Fantasy

NOT a mirror, but a wildly divergent reflection in a shimmering lake; a shadowy twin; a parallel yet opposite world; an emblem of paths not taken: South America's role in the North American imagination is often shaped by stereotypes that reflect and distort South American realities. ``Brazil,'' John Updike's 16th novel, is a North American fantasy projected southward.

Reading this brightly hued, lushly lurid romance set me thinking of two notable (North) American traditions: One is the high poetic line of writers like Walt Whitman (whose ``Welcome, Brazilian brother'' Updike quotes as an epigraph); Elizabeth Bishop (who not only wrote of Brazil, but went to live there); and Wallace Stevens (who in fact ventured no farther south than Florida, but in imagination became ``Mrs. Alfred Uruguay''). The other, less distinguished tradition of Hollywood and Madison Avenue produced the likes of Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian bombshell, and Chiquita Banana, inviting us to slice her on our cereal, ``every day.''

Sex and violence of a rather less innocent sort pepper the pages of Updike's fantastic narrative about a pair of star-crossed lovers on the lam. Tristao, a poor black boy from the slums of Rio, and Isabel, a rich white girl born into the nation's ruling class, meet on egalitarian Copacabana beach in the swinging 1960s. Attraction is instantaneous. He presents her with a stolen ring; she invites him up to her uncle's plush apartment and into bed. At 19, Tristao is experienced, the son of a prostitute. At 18, Isabel is still a virgin, but eager to be initiated into the ``womanhood'' the nuns at school warned her against.

Isabel's uncle is surprisingly tolerant on finding out about the affair. He and Isabel's widowed father are sophisticated men of the world. What they do not understand, however, is Isabel's determination to marry this unsuitable young man. ``This is ... vulgar romanticism of the sleaziest kind,'' her uncle warns her. Undeterred, the lovers elope. Steps are taken to intimidate and separate them. She is forced to attend a university in the eerily modern city of Brasilia, under her father's eye; he is given a factory job in Sao Paulo, closely monitored by an urbane yet menacing goon hired by her father.

But love, in time, finds a way, and the pair reunite to take off across the Brazilian hinterlands. Their flight takes them west, deeper into the interior, from gold mines to mountains to jungles. This passage from city to wilderness is also like a journey back in time: starting as street kid and spoiled brat, they become proletariat and student, then miner and prostitute, and eventually find themselves reduced to the lives of migrant hunter-gathers. Their story is, at once, a magic realist romance and an allegorical mock-history of Brazil itself.

The turning point comes when Isabel consults an Indian shaman, whose spells enable the couple to exchange skins. A white Tristao and a black Isabel make their way back to civilization, faring more favorably this time around. Isabel is charitably viewed as a charming black woman who has ``bettered'' herself by marrying ``up.'' Trists natural talents and varied experiences, once seen as signs of an unsettled life, now stand him in good stead. But, although improbably miraculous rescues and escapes pile up as high as hardships and weird catastrophes, this tongue-in-cheek love story cannot avoid tragedy.

Readers may well wonder whether they are watching a virtuoso Anglo craftsman in a dazzling display of Latin fireworks or whether they have inadvertently stumbled into an X-rated version of ``Flying Down to Rio.'' What seems certain is that a great deal of beautiful writing, arranged like a blossom-heavy vine over the trellis of an elegantly structured plot, has been used to dress up a story that is little more than a collection of cliches about women, men, blacks, whites, Indians, settlers, love, sex, class, and money.

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